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In Kendall Hinton, a practice squad receiver who due to a Covid outbreak was forced to start at quarterback for the Denver Broncos against the New Orleans Saints last Sunday, the NFL dropped any notion that it cares about the safety of players. An undercooked, under-skilled, unprepared player, a player who most members of the Broncos organization had never even met, was tossed to a professional defense, led by one of the league’s finest defensive minds, consequences be damned.
And yet one of those consequences was an extra point for those engaging in an age-old debate. Which sport, if summoned from your sofa, would you have a reasonable ability to succeed at, even by fluke?
Could you survive a three-minute prize-fight round? Par a hole at The Masters? Hit a curveball? Score a penalty against a professional goalkeeper? Complete a pass in the NFL?
Hinton’s start added another mountain of evidence in favour of the professional quarterback. No other position in sports, save, perhaps, a hockey goalie, has such an influence on a team’s play. And no position has such responsibility for a team scoring, because the quarterback handles the ball (barring some kind of trick play) on each and every snap.
Hinton was objectively awful because he should have been awful. There is no shame in that; he was thrown into an impossible situation. He finished with one completion on nine attempts for 19 yards, and was intercepted twice, meaning he threw more complete passes to the opposition than his own teammates.
And yet it should be noted that Hinton was no novice. He played quarterback in college before transitioning to wide receiver in his final year at Wake Forest. He even broke school records as a quarterback. As pure athletes in the NFL go, Hinton ranks high.
But even in the pace-and-space age playing quarterback at the pro level is about much more than just being able to run fast and hurl a ball 50 yards. In the modern game, more and more coaches – from high school on up – are putting their best athletes at quarterback. The theory is that if they don’t see an easy completion, they can take off on a run, where they’ll be as lethal as any running back or receiver in the open field. If one player is going to touch the ball on every snap, why not make it your best athlete?
It’s a smart tactic, and it has worked at lower levels. But not in the pros. Everything is based on rhythm and timing in the NFL, not only between the quarterback and his targets but between the receiver’s eyes and his feet.
Every dropback has a specific spot — a “launch point”, in coaching parlance – that the quarterback must hit before releasing the ball. On one play it might be a quick three-step drop, directly behind the center. On another play it will be three steps with a hitch. On another play, it’s three steps, but for the timing to work with the receiver’s pattern against a particular coverage, the quarterback has to slide to his left, but not so far to his left that he moves into pressure from the opposition pass rushers.
Nuance is the name of the game. For all the physical gifts of Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, and Kyler Murray, it’s their football intellect that makes them great. It’s their ability to diagnose coverages pre- and post-snap, the knowledge of when to switch a play, and the subtleties needed to execute on each and every play, with those magical, only-players-who-can-throw-and-run-like-that plays sprinkled on top for good measure.
Indeed, the NFL’s all-time passing records were set by a nearly fossilized Peyton Manning, a man who, by the end of his career, could barely throw the ball 10 yards, couldn’t run more than five, and who hit the deck before he was tackled to preserve his health. That version of Manning threw for close to 15,000 yards and 131 touchdowns in three seasons in Denver. All of it thanks to his computer brain, feel in the pocket, and sense of timing.
In terms of mental and physical complexity, there aren’t many other sporting positions that come close.
Of course, we’re talking about degrees of excellence and degrees of difficulty. Even some NFL coaches like Jim Schwartz argues that being a cornerback is, in fact, the most difficult position in all of sports. The argument being that at other positions, like quarterback, you know what you’re going to do; whereas a cornerback is a detective, searching for clues and trying to figure out what the offense is doing. And they’re doing it all by while starting backwards. Still, the ball may not be thrown anywhere near the corner, if it’s even thrown at all. A quarterback is never able to evade the ball.
Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend what we’re watching on the screen. The NFL is not like other sporting leagues around the world. Its challengers are either defunct, like the XFL and AAF, or far inferior in quality, like the CFL. All of the sport’s best professional talent is concentrated in one place: the NFL.
There is nothing like being a NFL quarterback. Where else are you forced to make decisions within 2.5 seconds with between three, four, or seven Hulk-sized human-begins charging down. And where else are those decisions so religiously tied to your competence, your desire, work rate, and worth? And where else does the success or failure of that decision rely on your 10 co-workers to perform exactly as they’re told?
An NFL quarterback stands alone – it’s what makes ascending to the top of the game so impressive. And even within the small fraction of players who make it, there are degrees of excellence, and players can go from future MVP candidate to laughing stock in the blink of a Carson Wentz season.
Nowhere is there a wider gap between those playing a position and those viewing it.